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Editor’s Choice: A new Dos Passos to chronicle our ‘Unwinding’

The Unwinding: The Inner History of the New America by George Packer; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 434 pages ($27). “No one can say when the unwinding began – when the coil that held America together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way … at some point, the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different …

“The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two – the fall to earth of the Founders’ heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding comes a cohesion.”

Clearly we can recognize in that where we are now in an era of Obama, the Internet and new Wall Street calamity.

Thank God for writers who think big. Really big. One of them – New Yorker staff writet George Packer – has found a literary forebear suitable for the unwinding we are undergoing now and a cunning and brilliant a literary ancestor it is for the world where we find ourselves: the great John Dos Passos, whose “U.S.A.” was probably the most radical literary vision of its era.

Without Dos Passos’ “Camera Eye” but with his own versions of Dos Passos’ “Newsreels” and short biographies, Packer is telling us stories both public and private, personal and communal. We follow Rust Belt inhabitants of Youngstown, Ohio, and sun-drenched Tampa, Fla. There are Wall Streeters and people who work for Joe Biden. And there are public figures, too, in various different shades of Packer praise and obloquy, from Elizabeth Warren, Raymond Carver and Jay-Z to Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Andrew Breitbart and Sam Walton. George Packer on the moment Jay-Z “bought a slice of the Nets and fronted the team’s move to Brooklyn”: “he came the boss and the star, the black Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson with sins.” Before the game “Jay-Z held up his middle finger. Sixteen thousand middle fingers answered him.”

– Jeff Simon